I used to think of grief in terms of waves, but now I that I’ve experienced it so deeply, I would say it’s much more like a sea. When you’re right in the middle of it, in the thick of the grief, your only goal is to maintain - to keep your head above the water, despite your feeling of drowning.

Grief is immobilizing, paralyzing, numbing, unreal and overly-real all at once.

I remember after she passed, I felt like I was moving in a fog. I waited for the bus in the mornings, sat through staff meetings, taught my classes, all robotically, and then would find myself in the bathroom with streams of tears. I cried more tears during that season than I knew I could hold. A sea of tears.

At the time, I was coming into my fourth year living in Argentina as an English teacher. In June of that year, my pastor and his wife from my home church in Pennsylvania were in a motorcycle accident, and we lost our pastor’s wife, one of my mom’s dearest friends. It was devastating and also heartbreaking for me to be so far away from my community.

Meanwhile my mother in law had just recently begun the battle with leukemia. There are different threads of leukemia, and she had the most threatening kind. It is a cut-throat disease, aggressive and comes without cause or reason. His mom was a dear friend, a mentor, and the woman who helped me transition to life in Argentina through her wisdom and humor. She was a fellow flower lover. She was a kindred spirit.

In August, only 6 months after her diagnosis, she also passed.

During that dark season, there were certain people who were key. They were the ones who understood that sometimes I wanted to be alone and other times I desperately needed to be with people. Sometimes I was moody, and they understood that it was never as much about the topic at hand, as much as it was about the topic that weighed over everything. They were the ones who constantly reassured me that it was going to be OK. They asked me how I was doing and if they could do anything to help. They were the ones who kept me afloat. It didn’t feel repetitive when they asked “How are you?” every day. It felt like a lifeline.

They were all lifelines - the friend who dropped off a toothbrush, mascara and a clean shirt to the hospital after being there for hours on end. My small group who made a pan of lasagna for the family. My boss who let me off of work for a few days, to let the dust settle a bit. When you’re in the deep midst of grief, these acts are like God’s hand personally reaching out. They are so essential.

In our state of numbness, we begun with the preparations for the memorial services. My husband asked me if I would make the floral arrangements.

In the middle of that huge sea of grief, I was asked to create.

The next day we headed to the flower market and purchased all of her favorite flowers - irises, delphiniums, bells of Ireland. Each one reminded me so much of her. When we returned home, I began to work on her casket flowers. It was such a contradiction to be working with a medium that exudes beauty and joy, for such a unbelievably painful occasion. While working, I would get caught up in the beauty and then quickly swept away again by the sorrow.

That’s how grief feels.

Although at the time, you’re in the middle of the sea, and you can’t seem to separate one from another. The beauty of the person - their voice, their laughter, all their endearing quirks - they all come sweeping in, but you’re buried so deeply in the numbing reality of what is, that it’s horror and beauty juxtaposed against each other. So you just swim. That’s all you can do.

For those in thick of it, I encourage you to stay afloat, and trust that despite the way it looks or seems, God is ever present.

And even more importantly, your hurts are also His. This was a simple but crucial truth for me.

For those on the outside looking in, don’t stop asking questions and bearing each other’s burdens. If we look around, we will always find someone who is in deep pain, and a simple “How are you doing?” could be an essential lifeline.

It could be a buoy in the midst of a deep, dark sea.

Floral photography by Mountain Gap Photography and Lefont Events
Journal photography by Courtney Di Trolio